The Glass is Always Greener

People in Glass Houses

There is a temptation when observing someone with mental illness to interpret all of their behavior through the lens of their diagnosis, but sometimes there are other explanations. Case in point: King Charles VI of France. Charles “was convinced that he was made of glass and would shatter at the slightest impact” (Norwich), refusing to let anyone near him for fear of breaking. He would lay still for hours on end, wrapped in blankets to protect himself.

We could consider this a delusion consistent with our hypothesis that he suffered from schizophrenia, but strangely, Charles’ belief that he was made of glass was not unique to him. In fact, so-called glass delusion seemed to be something of a cultural phenomenon primarily in Europe from the 1400s to late 1600s, with less frequent instances reported into the 1800s. It’s unlikely that everyone who walked around believing themselves to be a porcelain doll was schizophrenic, so what was really going on?

Very little academic research exists on the topic because glass delusion effectively disappeared from society entirely by the 1900s. When it was all the rage, it tended to afflict people from the upper echelons of society, where “melancholia” was in vogue (basically everyone was going through an emo phase). That includes other royals like Princess Alexandra Amelie of Bavaria, who believed she had swallowed a glass piano as a child and that it could break inside of her at any moment. In 1614, the physician to King Philip II of Spain recorded the case of a French prince who laid still on a bed of straw to keep from “shattering.” 

Princess Alexandra Amelie of Bavaria was another royal afflicted by the glass delusion. From

Some, like Charles VI thought they were made entirely of glass; others were convinced that only one body part was glass, perhaps their behind to which they tied a pillow before sitting down; still others believed they were trapped in a glass bottle or were themselves a specific glass object. Treatments required patients to realize they could be touched without breaking. That French prince came to his senses when he was forced to move after his straw bed coincidentally caught fire, and one doctor cured his patient by spanking his “glass” rear end.  So common was this delusion among the prominent people in society that so-called “Glass Man” characters began cropping up in literature, most notably in The Glass Graduate (sometimes also called The Lawyer of Glass in English) by Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes. 

Glass Half Full

Scholars have proposed many explanations for glass delusion that are reminiscent of my high school interpretation of “imagery” in The Great Gatsby. Because so many of those afflicted were public figures, a popular hypothesis is that glass delusion is an expression of feelings of fragility and vulnerability. Given the weight of Charles’ role and the constant threats to his power that he endured, these feelings certainly make sense. Additionally, some note that glass was a valuable commodity when this delusion was prevalent, and was often associated with purity, making it desirable. 

There is also the fact that glass is transparent. Were those plagued by this delusion afraid of being seen for who they truly were, or else of being invisible to others? In 2015, Dutch psychiatrist Andy Lameijn got a clue when a college student came into his hospital claiming to be made of glass; a stunningly rare modern case of glass delusion. The young man’s delusion was focused on windows, and he spoke of being visible at times and invisible at others. Dr. Lameijn found out that the patient had recently had an accident, and developed the hypothesis that his glass delusion had emerged in response to the increased attention he had been receiving from family. Being made of glass would enable him to disappear and go unnoticed, giving him the freedom he longed for.

Historians and clinicians hypothesize that glass delusion is a manifestation of anxiety about vulnerability, fragility, or transparency. From

Living in a Glass Case of Emotion

It is important to remember that even if Charles VI had not developed schizophrenia, he would have been under immense pressure. Ruling over a country embroiled in a century-long war while dealing with challenges to your authority at every turn could certainly lead to feelings of vulnerability and a desire for privacy, consistent with the proposed psychological roots of the glass delusion. Glass delusion may have enabled him to communicate and cope with these emotions, and gain some control by lying still and protected in his blanket cocoon. Thus, we can think of glass delusion as a common manifestation of the unique fears and stresses experienced by those who suffered from it. Glass delusion is therefore an interesting example of how society and culture can shape how we experience and express our interior struggles. 

A depiction of Charles VI in the Notre Dame Cathedral, made ironically of stained glass. From

Moreover, we can contrast it with what we learned about schizophrenia. Although researchers have yet to fully unravel the mystery of how and why schizophrenia develops, we saw that they have identified clear biological correlates in the physical brain: altered patterns of brain activity, reduced size of various brain regions, and increased synaptic pruning. In contrast, glass delusion remains unlinked to biology, and characterized only by what is happening in the “mind” –  the thoughts, feelings, and experiences produced by the brain. Some scientists argue that this purely psychological understanding simply represents the limitations in neuroscience as it stands today. They believe that as scientific techniques develop, we will one day be able to map every mental disorder onto its biological cause. Others firmly hold that we could know everything about the brain and would still fail to grasp the mysteries of the mind. As Dr. William Ross Adey of UCLA wrote, “one might just as well try to understand the sort of people that live in a city like Los Angeles by looking at the traffic patterns on the freeways, as to look at the transmission characteristics in the brain and expect to tell what sort of houses the people lived in, and whether they had Picassos on the walls or preferred the music of the Beatles.”

That’s a (bubble) wrap on Charles VI! Check back in next Friday when we kick off our next series on a woman who left her mark on history and then some.


These sources were used in addition to those listed in the previous Charles VI posts:

The people who think they are made of glass. (2015, May 8). Retrieved April 15, 2020, from

Meares, H. (2018, August 19). The Delusion That Made Nobles Think Their Bodies Were Made of Glass. Retrieved March 31, 2020, from

Speak, G. (1990). An odd kind of melancholy: reflections on the glass delusion in Europe (1440-1680). History of Psychiatry, 1(2), 191–206. doi: 10.1177/0957154×9000100203

4 thoughts on “The Glass is Always Greener

    1. Fascinating! I have never heard of glass delusion and wonder if it will make a comeback because of the unusual times we face. Also did more men suffer from this disorder than women? You mentioned the Bavarian princess, but you also refer to glass “man” characters. Maybe prominent men at the time felt more vulnerability. Thank you for stoking my brain — so appreciated!!


      1. Great questions! Not sure about the sex differences in prevalence. It’s possible that men were just more likely to be represented in literature and theater at the time. And some psychologists predict a resurgence in glass delusion due to the social stress of social media! Would be interesting to follow long term.


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